Alex is a Senior Director for a large Utility company and has been asked to lead a strategic initiative that if done right, could lead to exponential growth and significant improvement to its customer service organization. These types of projects have not been too successful in the past, but she knows exactly why: there was no focus on organizational change management.

Alex has been doing her homework and found that according to many studies across various industries and countries, change initiatives fail 70% of the time. Surprisingly, this metric from the Harvard Business Review article, Cracking the Code of Change, has remained status quo for several years. This time would be different according to Alex. She tagged a project manager, Jesse who could do both – manage the project and the change. You see, just like project tasks, there are integrated change management tasks as well, and you just need someone like Jesse, a high performer and rising star in the organization, to steady the ship and keep the project under control. Right? Well, not exactly.

When I started out in my consulting career some 20 years ago, organizational change management (OCM) was a hard sell for many clients. Many would tell me, “We will have our project manager and team leads to communicate and do the training. So, we have change covered and do not need any extra help.” Fast forward to 2021, many clients are learning the power of OCM – and that it’s not just communication and training. Executives, Directors, Managers and other leaders across organizations are finally realizing the importance of managing change and the impact it has in preparing employees for adopting change when deploying successful projects. This is great, as many sponsors of change initiatives are budgeting appropriately and tagging employees to manage them. However, managing change is different than leading it, and companies are still failing when it comes to the execution of that change.

The key ingredient that is missing when it comes to a holistic change solution is change leadership. Let’s walk through how we can help Alex and Jesse understand change leadership and how this awareness could put you in the 30% of successful change initiatives.

Managing change is different than leading it, and companies are still failing when it comes to the execution of that change.

Change leadershipThe Difference Between Change Management and Change Leadership

First, it’s important to know that there is a difference between organizational change management and change leadership. Organizational change management is the process and set of tools necessary to take organizations and impacted stakeholders through preparing for, navigating, and sustaining change by establishing and executing an approach to minimize disruption and get to a higher level of productivity and morale as quickly as possible. As world renowned change expert John Kotter puts it in this 2011 (yet still relevant) Forbes article, change leadership “is putting an engine on the whole change process and making it go faster, smarter, more efficiently.” Change leadership focuses on the leadership activities that will take the “human element” of change into account and can be thought of as a subset of OCM that takes it to the next level of success. It focuses on the behavioral component of stakeholder change acceptance as well as resistance by promoting urgency, clear vision, communication and sponsorship and a bought-in team to carry out the change. Sendero aligns our change leadership approach on Kotter’s principles, especially when it comes to his 8 steps where change leadership is necessary. In simplistic terms, the graphic below highlights some of the key differences between change management and change leadership.

Why a Lack of Change Leadership is Leading to Failed Change Initiatives

Now that we understand the difference between change management and change leadership, it’s important to understand why a lack of change leadership results in failed change initiatives.

Below are some fundamental problems that companies struggle with:

1. Lack of urgency: As I touched on in my blog, Why NOW is the Best Time to do an Organizational Structure Change, without creating a sense of urgency, companies get complacent and do not gain the support required for their constituents. They do not show the need for the change in the stakeholder terms and often neglect to appeal to people’s hearts and minds of those impacted.

2. Absence of change leaders: Expect resistance when you’re without a team of change leaders to champion the change – resistance to change is real, and if not addressed by a supporting team will have negative impacts in the short term and long term. Change Leaders understand that there is a natural and normal resistance to change, and we can help them learn to manage it to minimize the effects and help their team be more open to accepting change. Change can be negative (e.g., getting fired from a job, losing a loved one) or positive (e.g., getting married, buying a new house) and companies should be open to reactions to both.

A Caucasian male in a black suit sitting in a white chair holding a pen at a wooden table smiling off into the distance3. No vision: Lacking vision comes at a cost, and the cost of failure comes with direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are of course spending more money and adding resources due to missed requirements, project delays, etc. However, indirect costs such as losing confidence in employees when the next change initiative pops up can cost you for years.

4. Forgetting the right information (at the right time): Implementing change without communicating the right information at the right time and from the appropriate person, causes confusion and unwelcomed surprises. Sending an email about the change may cover some of the information but who knows if the receiving party is even going to read it.

Ensuring Change Leadership is at the Forefront of Your Next Change Initiative

So, what can Jesse and Alex do to ensure that change leadership is at the forefront of their change initiative and can be used successfully?

1. Team up: Enlist a dedicated team (not one person) that can not only manage but lead change. Educate these leaders on how to manage their own doubts in times of change, and how to help themselves and others identify and use tactics to assimilate change.

2. Build buy-in: Perform activities like making sure that there is a solid and understandable vision for the change, ensuring that people feel urgently and are ready for the change, and having a leadership team that is prepared to effectively communicate for “buy-in” and reward change efforts. Conduct 1-on-1 conversations eliciting perspective and awareness of the change. Learn what has worked well in the past, what not-so-much. Use this as an opportunity to walk the halls and get a feel from others when change is imminent. Are they resistant? Are they open to this change?

3. Instill collaboration: Schedule and facilitate change leadership workshops with leadership teams and, if needed, stakeholder groups. Use these workshops to create the urgency, set the vision, and plan for the change. This is a great place to create a case for change or change charter that can be used for this initiative and other future ones.

4. Set definitions: Clearly delineate the difference of project management, change management, and change leadership. Ensure dedicated teams are equipped to handle all three aspects of a successful project outcome.

Well, Alex and Jesse now have some ideas with key takeaways on the importance of change leadership and how not focusing on it could make the difference between a successful project and failure. But guess what? These ideas are just half of what you can do to promote change leadership and be a great change leader. And, is change leadership really any different than leadership? Stay tuned to hear how change leadership will lead to better results.

Change Leaders understand that there is a natural and normal resistance to change, and we can help them learn to manage it to minimize the effects and help their team be more open to accepting change.

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